By Liz H
During lockdown many of us missed being able to get out into the countryside or parks, now with nature springing up around us, we’re free to get back out there, but we need to think about the barriers to being wild.
During the pandemic many people felt that nature became more important for our wellbeing. When we were asked to stay at home, parks, beaches and the countryside were cut off from us and the value of these green places to our lives was brought into sharp focus. Many people longed for a glimpse of the sea or a chance to let their kids run around the woods. As restrictions were eased and we could once again access our countryside, people flocked to popular spots but there was a sting in the tail - they were the wrong sort of people using our countryside in the wrong way!
Access to natural resources in the UK has been an issue that has been fought through the ages; Royal forests, mass trespasses, right to roam (land reform), the clearances - who owns our land and who gets to spend time there, continues to be both political and personal. There are swathes of land, in often shrouded ownership, where every effort is made to deter the populous from spending time there. In England the public has a right of access to just 3% of the waterways – you can paddle your own canoe but not here. At a time when 1 in 5 children do not have access to a garden, urban green spaces and school playing fields are being sold outside public ownership at an alarming rate, being able to access nature is more important than ever.
So does access to nature really matter? Well, yes it does, firstly the links between access to nature and health and well-being are established – lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease and increased positive moods. But natural places also offer us opportunities to connect and form emotional bonds, they are also spaces where we can do things – play, imagine, explore, challenge ourselves and feel free. More than that, why isn’t it our land and why shouldn’t we be able to have access?
Legal ownership is not however the only issue, there are socioeconomic limits to who can get access to these places, there are further barriers that stop people being able to make the most of the natural resources we do have. The countryside has been monetarized and specialized. The message is loud and clear, don’t come here unless you have the gear. Now whilst tackling Ben Nevis in December in trainers might not be the best idea, you don’t need full hiking gear for a walk up Roseberry Topping or the Penshaw Monument. The narrative is clear if you get caught out on Snowden in the full kit, then fair enough, accidents happen but if you head to the lakes in trainers then what the hell were you thinking?
I’m not dismissing or diminishing the need for safety and the incredible work rescuers do, but many of these narratives are neck deep in assumptions about class, knowledge, and entitlement. Well-meaning D of E kit lists make families feel like the countryside is an expensive place that you should only attempt to access with full SAS training. If being in nature isn’t part of our identity, part of how we see ourselves, then natural places are ‘othered’ and alien. This contributes to the feeling that our natural resources aren’t ours at all – if we don’t feel at home or welcome in a place why would we go there?
But all is not lost, whilst land ownership and the right to sell our spaces is fought over in the courts, there are amazing grass roots groups breaking through the soil all over the UK. Individuals with pockets full of seed bombs are doing their bit sowing seeds on land-grabbed neglected plots in their communities, guerilla gardeners are growing veg on a forgotten verge, and walking groups like Boots & Beards are supporting communities in feeling they have a place on our green and pleasant hills. So maybe it’s time we followed their example and push a little harder to get nature into our lives.